HL Deb 31 July 1947 vol 151 cc870-80

3.36 p.m.

Order of the Day for the Third Reading read.


My Lords, in moving that the Bill be read a Third time, I have it in command flora His Majesty to acquaint the House that His Majesty, having been informed of the contents of the Agriculture Bill, is pleased to give his consent so far as His Majesty is concerned on behalf of the Crown, the Duchy of Cornwall and the Duchy of Lancaster, that the House may proceed therein as they may think fit.

Moved, That the Bill be now read (The Lord Chancellor.)


My Lords, I wish to say only a few words. We have at last reached the final stage in this great and important measure, and I must say that I am exceedingly proud to have been associated with it in your Lordships' House. I think my right honourable friend, the Minister of Agriculture, could well say with the poet, "Exegi monumenturn are perennius." I should also like to pay tribute to noble Lords on all sides of the House who have given this Bill their attention and who have made many suggestions, some of them extremely constructive, which we have considered very fully. We have gone as far as we can to meet the various points which have been made and which were discussed on other stages.

I should also like to acknowledge the fact that noble Lords opposite have not only co-operated but have paid us the tribute of recognizing that we have gone a long way to meet them in this Bill. I think that may well be an argument in favour of the wisdom of testing a measure of this kind in every conceivable way, of discussing it and debating it in every possible light before it finally reaches the Statute Book. I think, as a result of all those discussions and those debates, we have got a very good and effective Bill. Obviously, this Bill is the basis on which our policy will work. It has two main objects: one is stability, to enable all sections of the industry to work together, and to achieve prosperity; the second is efficiency, so that we can promote the greatest productivity that is possible in our agricultural industry.

We all know only too well the need for food in this country—food that is grown here and does not have to be bought with foreign currency. Therefore the importance of our two industries, coal and agriculture, is well recognized—coal to produce the goods and agriculture to produce the food we need. We recognize, I think, that there are difficult days ahead, but I myself look forward to a brighter future, when this country will achieve an even greater position than it has in its very glorious past. I am sure that one of the foundations on which that future will be built will prove to have been this Agriculture Bill. I hope, therefore, that your Lordships will give the Bill a speedy Third Reading.


My Lords, I should like, if I may, to take the unusual course of adding a few words now, because I feel that I am rather concerned in this matter. Yesterday, during the Report stage, I, as it were, blew into this Bill, and, in answer to an Amendment which was put forward by the noble Earl, Lord Radnor, I said that I would gladly look into the matter raised between then and the Third Reading. I suppose I ought to have known, but I am sure your Lordships will acquit me of the fact that I did not, that Third Reading was down on the very next day—that is, to-day. I rise only because I do not want your Lordships to think that I was being clever, or slim, or slick, in trying to dodge an Amendment in that way. I am sure your Lordships do not think this. I had not the least idea that, by reason of circumstances which I did not know, I should not be able to make good my undertaking; and if I tried that game on your Lordships once I know I should never be able to try it again. So I felt it was incumbent upon me to apologize to noble Lords for the mistake which I made, which is, I think, lessened by the fact that I think your Lordships ought to have known too.

What I would like to say is this. Following upon my undertaking I did, in fact, see the Ministers concerned, and I have got to know this morning their point of view. I did this in rather a casual way. It was not until one o'clock that I realized what I ought to have known all the time, that the Third Reading was down for to-day. However, what they feel with regard to that Amendment is this. They think it would be impossible that they should not have the powers which the clause gives them. They feel that there might be cases in which it would be quite insufficient that they should merely be able to take over the fag end of a lease which might be very short. Those are their very words. On the other hand, they do want to exercise their powers with discretion and with due regard to the landowner's rights.

May I make one further observation? I am head of the Chancery Division, but it is not for me to make pronouncements on law, or to mislead your Lordships; however, I, for myself, think this. I understand, from what I am told, that the great majority of leases of agricultural land are from year to year, and it is exceptional to have a long lease. But, if you do have a long lease, you must, of course, have covenants in it which make a person keep the land in good heart and so on, and you have always a right to go to the Court of Chancery to apply for a forfeiture. In the past, the Court of Chancery have been very slow to give consent, but I cannot think that that same doctrine will prevail in the future. When a landlord in future goes to the Court of Chancery and says, "Here is a tenant of mine who has got a long lease, and he is letting the whole thing down. I ask for a forfeiture, and I point out to you that unless you do grant me a forfeiture you imperil my whole position with regard to this land," I cannot help; thinking that the Court will take a different view in the future from that which has been taken in the past.

Whereas in the past they have been concerned merely to see that the tenant did not get into undue hardship, in the future they will have to consider what may happen to the landlord. I hope that is some consolation to your Lordships. I am not attempting to pronounce on the law of the matter, but I feel very certain that a Judge of the Chancery Division, in looking at all the circumstances of the case, will certainly have regard to the fact that if he did not grant a forfeiture for an undoubted breach of covenant, the landlord in question might find himself in the position of losing his entire interest in the land. That is obviously a factor which any Judge would take into consideration.

There is one other point, and that is with regard to the Amendment which the noble Lord, Lord Hazlerigg, moved. I have looked at this, too, but I do not think we could accept these words: having regard to the character and situation of the farm and to all other relevant factors. because it will point to one set of circumstances in the Bill. It so often has the implied effect of saying that you must nor give due weight to other circumstances. Having said that, however, I can give this assurance: that the Minister certainly intends that those considerations shall be in the very forefront of the matter when he comes to consider it. I hope your Lordships will not mind my intervening to supplement what has been so well said by the noble Earl, but I felt, as I had fallen into error yesterday, that I owed it to your Lordships and to myself to make these observations.


My Lords, might I assure the noble and learned Viscount, first of all, that no one will accuse him of attempting to mislead the House in any way at all, particularly on that point? Indeed, he fell into that error, but I am not certain that I myself and other noble Lords did not fall into the same error more than once in regard to raising points between Report and the Third Reading. His remarks on the particular point which affected me and my Amendment I think are extraordinarily hopeful, and I would like to thank him for them. They are, indeed, a consolation, first of all for the non-acceptance of my Amendment, and, secondly, for my complete failure after the conclusion of our debate last night to try and devise an additional Amendment to put down on the Third Reading which would meet the objection of the Government. I gave it up as a bad job.

May I say just a few, words at this stage of the Bill on behalf of my noble friends on this side of the House? It is true chat there has been a lot of discussion, both in this House, in another place and outside the House, in regard to this Bill, and we are grateful to His Majesty's Government for allowing us that discussion, particularly before the Bill came forward in another .place. I would, however, make one point on that matter, and than is that in all the discussions we have been trying to improve the Government's proposals. We have not been putting forward proposals of our own. While we may believe that we have improved the Bill, I do not mind saying that it is probably a very different Bill from what would have been put forward from this side of the House, had we had the opportunity.

I think the view is held on the other side of the House and has been expressed by one or two noble Lords on this fide of the House that this is a great Charter for agriculture. We shall see how it works. I do not believe it is really such a great Charter for agriculture. I t is merely the carrying on into peace time of war-time controls, and adding to those controls. They were controls which were born of war-time necessity, which I should have said normally had very little place in agriculture. However, be that as it may, the noble Earl, Lord Huntingdon a fin the course of one debate yesterday said: We hope that this Bill will bring a:)out an absolutely dynamic change in the whole farming industry. Dynamite is a funny thing to play with. Its results are generally violent, and almost always unexpected and sudden. Now sudden changes are just the one thing we do not want. I do hope chat the noble Earl will get out of his mind the idea that we are going to have sudden changes in agriculture, because he will be doing very great harm to that industry if he tries to make his changes too sudden.

The basis of this Bill is—putting it quite bluntly—that in exchange for control the industry is to have security. I think that that is fairly clear. The industry is to have economic security in exchange for control. We are given assured markets and assured prices, and in exchange we submit, as an industry, to control. So far as the landlord is concerned he is for the first time being controlled, and controlled to no mean tune, as I have pointed out before in previous discussions. A landlord might easily be made bankrupt by order under this Bill. Not only that, he has no economic safeguard, and he has no assurance that he is going to partake in any way in any prosperity of the industry. He has some sort of remote reversion to improved prices for agricultural produce but he can only obtain that through getting increased rent, and increased rent is not easy for the landlord to get under this Bill. He can only get increased rent either by agreement with his tenant or by going to arbitration. He has no sanction in respect of any increase of rent. He has lost the sanction of giving notice to a tenant who refuses to pay increased rent. He can only give notice to tenants now with the consent of the Minister. So the landlord is, in fact, going to suffer under a fairly severe form of control with little or no economic advantage. Nor is he going to have any means of putting his economic situation right if the Minister should take a certain line.

But I do not want to dwell on the landlord's difficulties. Let us turn to the case of the occupier of land. First of all, I think it was made clear, in the course of the Debate yesterday, that measures for increased security of tenure for the occupier may well prove to be a boomerang which will operate the other way, and, in fact, he will get insecurity of tenure in exchange for the security of tenure which has been proved to exist by figures which have been given in this House. That perhaps is a minor point. But he is also going to have war-time control continued. He is going to get remunerative prices and assured markets. I think the price arrangements and the price organization outlined in this Bill are admirable. They are the same as are in operation, but, as I have said before, on more than one occasion, it depends entirely on whether the Government, on their side, attempt to drive a hard bargain or are generous. Experience so far, has shown that they have been rather inclined to drive a somewhat hard bargain and so to discourage the farmer from working for that maximum production which we all want to see.

It is when we come to the question of assured markets that I find myself in some difficulty. There is a guaranteed price and there is in the Bill something to the effect that markets for the specified products will be assured. But it is only in Clause 4 (1) (b) (i) that it says that in certain circumstances, the Minister may by order provide for securing that, subject to any specified limits of quantity, a producer who has failed to effect a sale at a specified price through the ordinary means of trading in produce mentioned in the First Schedule to this Act shall, subject to the specified conditions, be enabled to sell the produce at the specified price to such person as may be specified. "Specified," in this part of the Bill, means specified by or under order under this Part of the Bill. It is rather a vague way of assuring the farmer that he is going to be able to sell all of the produce that he produces, possibly by order from the county agricultural committee. I know well that the Minister, in another place, gave every assurance that he could that the markets would be assured for those products mentioned in the First Schedule. But a Minister's assurance is a very different thing from what may be in an Act of Parliament. Not only that, but quite recently there have been one or two straws which show which way the wind of prices blows.

I recognize well that the products I am going to mention are not products which come in the First Schedule, but I submit that these matters show which way the wind blows. Consider the case of seed for cocksfoot grass. Every encouragement has been given to farmers to produce cocksfoot for seed, and they have responded. At the same time, I understand, His Majesty's Government have bought considerable quantities of cocksfoot seed abroad. There was a good harvest of cocksfoot seed last summer, and the supplies from abroad also are on the market. The result is that there is more cocksfoot seed on the market than the market can reasonably absorb. His Majesty's Government have removed price control, and they have not guaranteed to those men who have bought cocks-foot seed a market for their cocksfoot. They are under no obligation to do that, as I well know. Therefore, I say that this is a straw which shows the way the wind blows. Take plums next. There is going to be a good harvest of plums this year, we are told. Price control has been removed so that the farmer can take the full impact of a downward movement of the market. I believe the same applies to apples; that maximum price operates and is made to operate only, apparently, when there is a scarcity, so that the farmer cannot take advantage of the market conditions in order to make sufficient profit to put something by for a rainy day. The moment there is a sufficiency of any particular product price control is removed, and the farmer takes the economic impact.

I am not saying that this will happen, but supposing there were two good grain harvests in succession, there might well be more grain in the world then than the world really needs. World prices will drop well below to-day's prices. Is the same thing going to be done in the case of wheat as in the case of cocksfoot, plums and apples? Although it may seem all right to say that the farmer is assured of a market for his produce, so far as I can see there is no such genuine assurance in the Bill itself, and we are relying simply and solely upon the assurance of a Minister of Agriculture who may be gone ere long, and whose successor will look for guidance to the Bill and not to the words of his predecessor.

There is only one other thing that I Wish to say. We all realize that the county committees are the vital point in the whole structure of the Bill. If they are unable to deal with their duties properly, or if they fail in their duty, the whole structure will fall to the ground. A great deal of work is being put on them, and I hope that the Government, when they come to deal with the various matters put up to them by the county committees, will treat the committees with every possible sympathy. I hope they will treat directly with the committees rather than do so through other officials of the Ministry who may be in regional offices or elsewhere. There have been times when there has been a certain amount of dissatisfaction in county committees because recommendations have been turned down by some regional officer before they reached Whitehall, and when the recommendations did reach Whitehall the official has been listened to rather than the committee. That kind of thing, unless watched carefully, can easily do a great deal of harm to, the work of the committees. I would finally say that. even though I am certain the Bill has defects, noble Lords on the Government side may be assured that all concerned in the industry will do their level best to make the provisions of the Bill a success. But we shall not hesitate to come back and tell them when there is anything in the Bill which is unworkable and can, he altered.

4.2 p.m.


My Lords, as the noble and learned Viscount, the Lord. Chancellor, made. reference to the small. Amendment which Lord Ashburton and I moved and said he could not accept it because, if a clause like that came in once, it would come up again some time, I should like to point out that on Clause 95 the noble Earl, Lord Huntingdon, yesterday moved the insertion of "the character and situation of the land a id other relevant circumstances," which m as almost exactly the same words as I moved on Clause 36. Mine were, "relevant factors," and, of course, there may be a. difference in law. It is an interesting point.

The noble Earl, Lord Radnor, has said: practically everything that can be said on this Bill from this side of the House but I should like to point out one very curious omission. I only saw when was reading it again last night and I wonder if the Minister has found out this peculiar omission. If a county agricultural committee take over land and farm it badly themselves, who is going to supervise them or dispossess them? I ask that because I have seen some disgraceful cases of farming by county war agricultural committees, and that seems a point which the Minister might usefully think over in future.

I have entire confidence in the assurance given on the small point I raised and it is now up to the Minister and the Ministry to administer the Bill in the best way possible. I hope he will be. able to go to his two colleagues who have so much to do with agriculture and persuade the Minister of Health to have something in place of the Housing (Rural Workers) Act, which he is destroying, so that we can get cottages in rural districts. The rural district councils cannot build cottages in proper places for farm workers. In our rural district we have twenty cottages built in one village surrounded by agricultural land. Ten of them were to be given up to agricultural workers but only three workers have applied because they say they do not like the rents of the rural district council houses. Strange to say, they prefer to live in the tied houses provided by farmers and landowners. This is one point which I hope will be discussed between the Minister and the Minister of Health. Electricity he will be able to supply very quickly now you are going to manage electricity from Whitehall. I do not know about water. If I were to do any nationalizing, the first thing I would nationalize would be water, something which everyone wants and very few people in remote country districts can get in satisfactory supply. Another Minister I hope he will approach is the Minister of Food. I was very glad to hear the noble Earl say that he felt and that many people now felt, it was much more economical to buy feeding stuffs so that our livestock could be nourished and our hens lay eggs rather than get meat and eggs from abroad. There was a very interesting letter on the other day in The Times newspaper on that subject. I am not going to quote it, but from time to time one sees that eggs, dried eggs and suchlike things are purchased in enormous quantities from abroad. I feel it would be much more economical if we produced them in this country. I thank your Lordships for allowing me to say these few words.


My Lords, at this stage I do not wish to keep your Lordships very long. On the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Hazlerigg, as to what would happen when county agricultural committees farmed their land badly, I presume the remedy would be to inform the local Member of Parliament. The Minister will be responsible to Parliament and I think it is safe to say, will be severely criticized for any mismanagement on the part of his Department. I would like to emphasize once more the point I made on Second Reading and which has been mentioned again by the noble Earl, Lord Radnor, that the horticultural section of the industry needs reassurance in regard to security. Methods of providing this are difficult to devise but I can say that horticulture is receiving attention. I welcome what tie noble Earl has said, that noble Lords, whether or not they agree absolutely with us that this is a first-class charter, generally are willing to co-operate in trying to build up the farming industry.

On Question, Bill read 3a, with the Amendments, and passed, and returned to the Commons.